Close to one-fourth of the city’s children miss seven days of school every month.
Doctors blame breathlessness, but surely Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, too, should shoulder some of it. For, if doctors are pointing out the effect (asthma), the cause is the lack of political will to clean up the foul air the children are forced to breathe.
A recent survey by Institute of Child Health (ICH), Calcutta, has revealed how 24 per cent of schoolchildren, suffering from childhood asthma, miss classes for a week every month on an average.
“In the past two years, cases of childhood asthma in the city have grown three times,” says Ritabrata Kundu, in charge of ICH’s paediatric asthma clinic. “These children suffer from moderate to severe asthma.”
As asthma attacks usually set in at night and worsen in the early hours, young victims end up losing sleep and missing the bus to school.
Doctors point an accusing finger at the rising pollution levels in the city. “Air pollution is playing a major role in the rise of child asthma cases, especially among those who are genetically susceptible to it,” says Apurba Ghosh, director, ICH. “The lung tubes of children (bronchus and bronchioles) are easily constricted by dust and vehicular fumes, leading to spasms.”
Pollution is clearly villain number one when it comes to a child’s lungs. “Controlling asthma is extremely difficult if the patient remains in a polluted atmosphere,” warns Ashok Sengupta, senior chest specialist of Apollo Gleneagles Hospital.
And there is no escaping a “polluted atmosphere” in Calcutta, with the government soft-pedalling on a switch to clean fuel like CNG or LPG. As a result, the average respirable particulate matter (RPM) count in the city air is “almost double” the permissible standard of 60 micrograms per cubic metre, according to recent pollution control board findings. And about 70 per cent of the RPM the children breathe is 3.3 microns or less, making it most potent in penetrating the innermost recesses of their lungs and causing irreparable damage.
Apart from missing classes, asthma also seriously affects a child’s growth. “Uncontrolled asthma can cause growth retardation due to poor appetite and poor sleep,” says one of the doctors who was part of the survey team. It also hampers the child’s concentration in studies and participation in sports and recreational activities.
Air pollution apart, passive smoking, perfume atomiser, mosquito repellent and even junk food can aggravate asthmatic conditions, say doctors.
According to medical estimates, only 11 per cent of the child asthma patients are diagnosed and treated properly.
A vast majority is put down as victims of chronic cough, wheezy bronchitis or recurrent pneumonia. “If a child is suffering from chronic cough and cold and lacks of appetite, he must be tested for asthma before it is too late,” advises Kundu.